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Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

By Thomas D. Babin

For most of the 20th Century, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada held an underground secret that belies its appearance as a sleepy prairie city. Then a car fell into a massive pot hole and city officials stopped denying one of the most intriguing and bizarre histories in North America. That car collapsed into an underground network of tunnels that had, for nearly a century, been the whispered home of Chinese railway workers, smugglers and even the infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone.

It wasn't like that in the beginning. Moose Jaw began modestly, nestled amongst some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world. Canada's push west turned Moose Jaw into an important railway hub, feeding locomotives to the Pacific and the American Midwest. Moose Jaw was once even the railway nucleus of a legion of Canadian soldiers sent west to put down a rebellion of aboriginal and mixed-race freedom fighters.

But it was the thousands of nameless Chinese immigrants building the railway that gave Moose Jaw its labyrinth. Railway work was dangerous and unforgiving, and so was the welcome most Chinese faced from European settlers. In Moose Jaw, those immigrants chose to move underground rather than face the crushing racism above. They built an amazing network of underground tunnels to give themselves a home, and generations of families were quietly raised underground, slipping into the tunnels from hidden doors at the backs of laundries and restaurant kitchens.

But when prohibition hit the United States, Moose Jaw's direct rail line to Chicago became a rumrunners highway. Aided by a colorful and corrupt police chief, the city and its tunnels became integral to Al Capone's smuggling operation. He made personal trips to the prairie outpost to oversee shipments of contraband, employing locals to cut his hair and yank rotting teeth under the dim light of hanging bulbs.

Today those tunnels are a tourist attraction, but it's Moose Jaw's convoluted history, seen as a microcosm of North American development, that is the real reason to visit. Settler barns shakily stand near flapper-era mansions. Walking the underground passages is like touring the immigrant experience — from hardship and shame to a multicultural emergence from the underground. The city's stagnant population growth is testament to the global population drive towards huge metropolises and its outdoor murals are an acknowledgement of the continent's oft-neglected heritage.

The cookie-cutter small-town charm the local tourism bureau markets isn't what draws visitors to visit Moose Jaw; it's something darker. A local walking tour will reveal the hardships of settler life and the racism that drove a culture underground, but genuinely taking in the culture of Moose Jaw means understanding the grit of a prairie settlement that has survived a century of change and the quiet desperation of a small city trying to stay relevant.

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